Songs of Praise – A War Diary
“For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.
Hashem our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place. What is humankind that you remember them, the child of mortal man that you are mindful of them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet…Hashem our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
For a very long time, I have wondered how it all works. Kierkegaard presents it without flinching: “I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How did I come here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted? Where is the director?”
The brooding figure in 19th century Copenhagen reached across time and space and made his mark, worlds away, on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “He wants to know: `Why is it?’ `What is it?’ `Who is it?’ He wonders: `Why did the world in its totality come into existence? Why is man confronted by this stupendous and indifferent order of things and events?’” (Lonely Man of Faith). I have thought about this since I was a boy, and the child’s wonder eventually became the adult’s quest. Reading your psalms has made me think about it all over again.
“God, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens…You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; You put everything under their feet.”
Part of the problem is that even with the Glory up in heaven, there are many who aspire to bring “Your name” back down to earth. Glory in the beheadings. In the stonings. In the burnings. In the rapes. In the torture. Glory in the executions and the mass graves. Glory in the filming and livestreaming of all of the above.
So was that a good idea, to create humans and let them run loose, like foxes in the henhouse, while You “set your glory up in the heavens”? Did You capture it all on the canvas, take a long detached painterly stare, pack up Your brushes, and head back to the nether regions?
My point, David, is that maybe it’s not such a good thing to have God’s name be quite so mighty. I propose a little break in the glorification, even though this is a God that I literally speak to in prayer every day of my life. So let’s all lower the volume on His mighty name. Just a temporary truce, if you will. A break, please, so I can breathe.
We won’t mention Him in Hebrew or Arabic or English or Italian or German or French or Korean or Persian or Spanish or Russian or Turkish or Chinese, or sign or mime, or any other language at all, or speak to Him in tongues or with swords or crosses or price tags at our sides, or self-righteousness at our hips. We’ll just contemplate His glory in silence for a while, if you don’t mind. And we will do nothing, absolutely nothing, in His name. Silence over glorification. Silence as glorification.
Although, David, you may have a point, in a Buddhist kind of detached way, that perhaps we fool ourselves by pretending that all of this glorification matters: “What is humankind that you remember them, the child of mortal man that you are mindful of them?”
Do you mean that it’s almost like a cosmic “don’t take it personally”? If so, then a harsher version, dismissing human pretension to importance or even relevance, can be found in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed (3:12), as if the great philosopher was in a snit: “Every ignoramus imagines that all that exists, exists with a view to his individual sake; it is as if there were nothing that exists except him…However, if we considered and represented to ourselves that which exists and knew the smallness of our part in it, the truth would become clear and manifest to us.”
But maybe you don’t mean that at all, and what you are really expressing is that despite us being a cosmic spec, and that many days it feels like an utterly abandoned world, that God still loves us and cares for us, “remembers and is mindful” of mortals, even though we are less than insignificant. I’m leaning towards reading you that way, largely because this is the first psalm I’ve read since the start, where you actually seem upbeat, as though you’ve been able to rise from your tear-stained couch, open the curtains, and see the Glory. Your words shine with appreciation, yes, but also a trace of bewilderment and maybe even wonder, like the high school kid who has been sitting in the corner and staring at that gorgeous one all year, and then, two weeks before graduation, she suddenly turns around, looks him straight in the eye, and lets out a big and genuine smile. `I do exist!!’ thinks the boy. `Who knew’?
So, if I can bother you with one last thing, David, if you could just tell me, please: Should I draw comfort from the fact that, somehow, in some unforeseen and unknowable way, all of our efforts and arguments, our love and pain, compassion and cruelty, life and death, really matter in an ultimate sense? Or does the relief lie in the truth that, in the long, long run, we do not matter at all?
Can both be true?